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Ozarks highlighted at festival in nation’s capital

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Their charge was to carve up a slice of the Ozarks and plunk it down in the center of the National Mall, just east of the Washington Monument in Washington, D.C.

Organizers, including the Smithsonian Institution and lead partner Missouri State University, came through with The Ozarks: Faces and Facets of a Region, a two-week slate of events offered as part of the Smithsonian Folklife Festival June 29-July 4 and July 6-9. Some six dozen local presenters were featured.

Steve Edwards, retired CoxHealth president and CEO, happened to be in the nation’s capital for a conference and experienced three days of the event. Edwards said it was fantastic.

“I love the feeling of the Ozarks being highlighted in our capital,” he said.

Edwards said he enjoyed the music and the emphasis on cultural diversity in the region, and he even enjoyed some Ozark regional beers.

“I guess as we live and work in Springfield, it’s easy for us to forget the melting pot of who we are,” he said.

With populations ranging from the Native American people who first settled the land to the world’s largest Marshall Islands immigrant population – 15,000 strong and located in northern Arkansas – the region is diverse, Edwards said.

“I’m more of the hillbilly type here in terms of ancestry,” he said.

The region known as Ozarks includes a cultural identity as well as a physical one, defined geographically as the highlands region north of the Arkansas River and spanning five states. The region is so diverse that it’s impossible to represent in its entirety, according to Kaitlyn McConnell, part of the organizing team.

“We can’t show every element of the Ozarks in this program – there aren’t enough people to be able to cover every inch of what should be shared,” she said. “It’s much bigger than the hillbilly image.”

But McConnell, an Ozarks historian and curator of the Ozarks Alive website, is not offended by the term hillbilly, an identity she sees as a “make it work” spirit.

“If it’s something truly across the board, it’s ingenuity and the ability to make things work where they are,” she said. “That’s something that really transcends generations.”

McConnell said that ingenuity goes back to the Native American people who first lived on the land, and it is also true in more modern history.

“It’s dealing with a difficult place – rocky soil, hills, not an easy place to get around – and adapting their expectations to what’s here because they wanted to be here,” she said.

That’s something that is still seen today, in tourists, who choose to visit the region so they can experience the rugged terrain, and in those who relocate to the Ozarks and do what they need to make a life here, McConnell said.

“It’s easier today than when you were homesteading back in the 1800s,” she said. “There are different levels of resources, but it’s still a place where people make lives and try to make things work. What other choice do you have? You’re either going to figure it out or die trying.”

A big stage
Organizers have gone to great lengths in more than two years of planning to showcase the Ozarks, past and present. The first day of the festival kicked off with distilling demonstrations, guitar making, muralism, quilt making and basketweaving – and even mountain bike trail riding demonstrations. Local Hmong and Marshallese immigrant populations showcased their traditions, like Hmong rice wine and Marshallese boat building.

One topic that has garnered a lot of interest is foraging – finding edible foods in nature. Rachael West, a wild food educator and owner of Springfield’s Eating the Ozarks LLC, said partway through the first week, she had more than a thousand visitors stop by and experience her scratch-and-sniff Mason jars to learn that wild oregano smells just like pizza and sassafras root smells like root beer.

The jars feature the Latin and common names of the Ozarks plant on top with some culinary uses on the side.

“You can see what the herb looks like and read about it and see how I use it,” she said.

And it’s more than just passing curiosity, West said. In fact, someone from Virginia signed up to attend one of her upcoming foraging suppers, called the Crystal Cave Overnight Campout, set for later this month.

It’s a capsulized version of what the festival may yield for the region: more knowledge, more interest, more visitors and perhaps more future residents. The Missouri Division of Tourism is one of the lead sponsors of the event.

A sense of place
Tom Peters, dean of libraries at MSU, took point for the university in planning for the Ozarks portion of the festival, which he said had a $1.5 million budget. He noted that the Smithsonian predicted 600,000 would attend the 10-day festival – an estimate that does not include online visitors.

“What we’re striving for is to give people at least a smattering of folk life in the Ozarks, past and present,” he said. “We’re trying to give people a sense of what the Ozarks is really like.”

Peters said people who have been exposed to the Ozarks only through popular culture know it from portrayals in “The Beverly Hillbillies,” if they’re older, or “Ozark,” the Netflix drama series, for younger observers. The truth of the region is much richer and more diverse, he said.

As a librarian, Peters is more keyed in than most on the importance of archiving what is happening now so that people in the future can experience it.

“All of us are snapping pictures and making short videos,” he said. “When you do that, 50 years from now, the value of that will be really significant.”

Much of what they are documenting is a vanishing culture of quilting gatherings, bluegrass jam sessions and other traditional crafts. Paradoxically, Peters noted, the Ozarks have always been perceived as vanishing.

He noted in the 1930s-40s, folklorist Vance Randolph tried to understand and capture the history and culture for posterity.

“Even Randolph felt like it was vanishing, but it’s still here,” Peters said. “Either it really is fragile and going away, or it’s much more resilient than we think of it.”

Peters said he has learned a lot about the Ozarks during festival planning, and he is enjoying seeing others learn about the culture. He noted visitors to the quilting tent are invited to sit down and add a few stitches to the communal quilt.

“It’s been a pleasant surprise to see how vibrant quilting is in the Ozarks right now,” he said. “It seems to have a bright future.”

The Ozark Mountain Daredevils are another aspect of the culture that has staying power in the national imagination, according to Peters. The band played an Independence Day concert on the mall and drew an enthusiastic crowd.

The D.C. concert was sponsored by a Springfield business – Kaleidoscope, which was founded in 1972, a year before the Daredevils.

“They’re a good representative for the Ozarks,” said store co-owner Tom Pierson. “If you don’t know the Ozarks, and a lot of people there in Washington won’t, when you see the band and how good they are and the different kinds of music they play, they’re a really good ambassador for the area.”

Peters said there are no plans to expand the festival into a permanent exhibit, either at the Smithsonian or locally.

Edwards said he left the festival hungry for more.

“It’s making me want to come back to Springfield and say let’s do the very same thing here to remind ourselves of who we are and highlight our diversity,” he said.

Edwards added that Washington is teeming with energy around Independence Day, and it was nice to see that energy focused on the Ozarks and possibly draw visitors to the area.

“You walk down the mall and hear 10 languages in 100 steps,” he said. “The whole world is seeing Ozark culture. It made me proud.”

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